Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Are Motherhood and Feminism Incompatible?

I have never considered myself a feminist. I'm not "anti-feminist." I support many of the aims of feminism, such as gender equality in the workplace and advocacy for victims of discrimination, violence, and sexism. But I just haven't felt like I fully identified with the socio-political group of "feminists."

What comes to mind when you think of the feminist movement? Maybe it's women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Maybe it's politics, like the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade. Perhaps it's social issues, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, or rape. Or maybe it's just Girl!!! Power!!! I'd say all of those are pretty valid answers.

But when you think of feminism, do you think of moms? Probably not. Do you know why? Because the feminist movement doesn't think about moms either.

In the United States, something like 80% of women will have at least one child. That's more than the number of women who obtain bachelor's degrees (26%) and more than the number of women participating in the workforce (60%). But where is the feminist activism on behalf of mothers?

I started with perhaps the most well-known feminist group, the National Organization for Women (NOW). The "Top Priority" issues that NOW works with are listed on the front page of their site: Abortion and Reproductive Rights, Economic Justice, Ending Sex Discrimination, Lesbian Rights, Promoting Diversity and Ending Racism, and Stopping Violence Against Women. Worthy causes, all. When I clicked on "Many more" at the bottom of the list, I found, way down on the list of "Other Important Issues" a link to the Mothers [sic] and Caregivers [sic] Economic Rights page. The issue as NOW sees it is paid parental leave. Their action plan on this issue consists of.... a petition. Oh, and encouragement for women to contact their Senators. Wow, great plan. Things weren't any more promising on the Abortion and Reproductive Rights page. Apparently, the only reproductive rights that NOW supports are the ones that assist women who DON'T want to be mothers. The agenda is abortion, emergency contraception, and birth control access for all women. These are important issues, but do nothing for the women who choose to carry a pregnancy to term.

I next decided to head over to NARAL Pro Choice America. This was another bust, as their platform of issues encompasses only abortion rights, birth control access, sex education, and "Women of Color." Nothing about being pro-choice for women's childbearing options as opposed to pregnancy prevention and termination options.

Surely the ACLU must be working on behalf of mother's rights, right? Wrong. While they have a Women's Rights Project (started by Ruth Bader Ginsburg), the project only focuses on four areas: Employment, Violence Against Women, Criminal Justice, and Education. Again, all important issues, but nothing that directly advances the position of mothers.

I wandered over to the Obama Administration site, There is a Women's Rights page, but it looks like news stories, blog entries, and job postings. Nothing resembling any kind of national movement of any type.

This is getting discouraging.

Isn't anyone fighting for better maternity leave policies? For breastfeeding women who are returning to work and need time and a place to pump breastmilk? For women who want to be attended by a homebirth midwife (still illegal in 10 states)? For women who want options other than a court-ordered cesarean section?

Well, how about the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW)? Now we're getting somewhere! The NAPW includes the following in its mission:
  • By focusing on the rights of pregnant women, including those who are continuing their pregnancies to term, we hope to broaden and strengthen the women’s rights and progressive movements in America today... While it is generally recognized that people have a right to bodily integrity and the right to procreate, women face an array of restrictions on their reproductive decision-making, from restriction on access to abortion services, to restrictions on alternative birthing practices to a wide variety of health and welfare polices that devalue and undermine motherhood for some women, including low income and women of color. Although it is generally accepted that adults can decide what medical treatment they will or will not have - once a woman becomes pregnant others may be able to make that decision for her.
Now that's what I'm talking about. While the NAPW doesn't address issues beyond pregnancy (such as maternity leave and breastfeeding rights), it's still a great agenda. However, they do not specifically bill themselves specifically as a "feminist" or "women's rights" organization. They consider themselves a reproductive and human rights organization.

The National Partnership of Women and Families works toward family-friendly employment policies, such as flexibility in the workplace and paid sick leave. In fact, the National Partnership helped draft the Family Medical Leave Act legislation. Their agenda is great for working mothers, though I would like to see them go even further by adding support for breastfeeding/pumping moms. And in the reproductive health arena, they only scratch the surface, by supporting general ideas of affordability, quality, evidence-based and patient-centered care. It would be good to see

The other problem: Have you ever heard of the National Partnership and/or NAPW? Most people probably have not. They don't have the prominence of (and the political weight that goes along with) larger organizations like NOW and the ACLU. Women (and men too!) need to know about the NAPW and the National Partnership in order to give the organization a broader base of support and more political sway.

To be fair, there is a patchwork of different groups that support specific mothers' rights issues. For example, The MAMA Campaign and The Big Push for Midwives support choices for birthing mothers and pro-midwifery laws. First Right works to end breastfeeding discrimination. Over the past few decades the feminist agenda has not adequately included the rights of mothers. As it stands now, there isn't one umbrella organization to encompass ALL of the personal, political, social, and economic issues mothers face. Maybe some would say it's not necessary, that the other groups, small and large, that have a piece of the "mommy agenda" will be able to get the job done. I wonder, though, if it's an idea whose time has come.

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